By Mahmoud Hakamian
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Kuwait on Wednesday for the start of a Middle East tour that was scheduled to also take him to Israel and Lebanon. As noted by Agence France-Presse, the trip is largely focused on galvanizing multilateral resistance to the rising influence and destructive foreign policy actions of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Pompeo’s stop in Kuwait, in particular, was expected to provide the latest outlet for the Trump administration’s ongoing salesmanship regarding a Middle East Strategic Alliance that would bring together Iran’s regional adversaries around this mission.
As ABC News points out in its reporting, the Secretary of State is likely to encounter varied reactions at each of his three stops, with Kuwait falling somewhere in the middle between Israel’s warm embrace and Lebanon’s skeptical but pragmatic negotiations. After all, over roughly the past two years Kuwait has made an effort to function as a mediator in the persistent conflict between regional states over their contrasting approaches to Iranian affairs.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have led an effort to isolate Qatar over allegations that the small Arab country has grown too close to Iran and has supported terrorism in the region. The US has joined with Kuwait in advocating for the resolution of this conflict, but the US cannot reasonable be said to be a neutral party in the midst of its escalating war of words with Iran. For this reason, it is likely that Kuwait and the US will see eye-to-eye on the general issue of Arab unity following Pompeo’s visit, but may remain somewhat at odds over the specific implications of the MESA project.
But Wednesday’s outreach to Kuwait is only part of a large and varied American effort to build consensus around the issue of confronting and containing the Islamic Republic. The White House need not do much to promote this position in Israel, which has itself been a leading advocate for collective policies that may prevent Tehran from securing a permanent foothold in places like Syria. On the other hand, Pompeo will have his work cut out for him as he tries to secure buy-in from Lebanese politicians while striving to exclude Iran’s local militant proxy, Hezbollah, from contributing to the regime’s influence in Syria and other parts of the region.
The ABC News report explains that the administration planned to put pressure on Lebanese President Michel Aoun, among other officials, to “disconnect” from Hezbollah and its Iranian backers. This may be a difficult proposition, however, since many of those same officials helped to broker a deal that provided Hezbollah with an expanded role in government and a substantial share of political power. Pompeo reportedly provided no specific details about how the administration expected to convince Lebanese counterparts to act against this agreement.
But the ABC report went on to note that the administration was also expected to put pressure on private entities in Lebanon and elsewhere to keep Hezbollah funds out of banks and to generally help enforce economic penalties on the group’s Iranian sponsors. Although the Islamic Republic was made subject to widespread sanctions relief under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the White House pulled out of that agreement last year and re-imposed unilateral sanctions. Since then, the administration’s strategy of “maximum pressure” has entailed appealing to various foreign partners to diminish or entirely halt their economic relations with Iranian entities.
It remains to be seen whether Lebanon’s government or private sector offer a response that the White House deems adequate after Pompeo’s visit. But the White House has signaled general optimism on this matter through public statements that highlight apparent cooperation from other nations in preventing Iran’s illicit trade of oil, among other economic activities.
Voice of America News reports that at least since August, the Islamic Republic has been working to circumvent US sanctions by switching off the transponders for its oil tankers, among other methods. But the same report quotes American officials as saying that they will effectively punish anyone who helps Iran to facilitate banned trade. “We are closely tracking ship-to-ship transfers of [Iranian] oil to evade our oil sanctions,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions David Peyman. “And we're working closely with foreign governments to ensure they are monitoring ship-to-ship transfers off their coasts.”
Peyman also stated that a number of countries have committed to preventing their flags from flying on Iranian tankers, thereby preventing them from falsely signaling that their oil can be traded lawfully. Even so, these measures will only go so far toward preventing that trade, as long as there are other nations that are willing to take the risk of helping Iran to evade US sanctions. And by all accounts, such willingness remains not only among Iran’s established partners and neighbors but also among European allies of the US.
The European Union and its member states have been pulled in two directions. On the one hand, the desire for access to Iranian markets led the three European signatories to the Iran nuclear deal – the United Kingdom, France, and Germany – to jointly establish a barter-like trade mechanism for transactions with the Islamic Republic. This has come to be known as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges, or INSTEX, and according to the Voice of America report its function may still expand to include more than trade in food and humanitarian goods.
On the other hand, the US has publicly reiterated its commitment to working against the payment system both on its own and in connection with global partners. And the potential effects of this pressure are increasingly amplified by European policymakers own awareness of persistent threats related to the Islamic Republic. Early this year, the EU moved to impose sanctions on Iran’s intelligence service and some of its known operatives, in response to recent terror threats including the June 2018 effort to bomb the international rally of Iranian expatriates that was organized near Paris by the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Related sanctions by the French government may have been the source of the announcement on Tuesday that Iran’s Mahan Airlines would no longer be flying to the European nation. Weeks earlier, Germany banned that same airline in a step that the foreign ministry described as being necessary to “foreign and security policy interests.” Mahan has long been accused of transporting weapons and personnel to Iran’s terrorist proxies and on behalf of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
According to AFP, a spokesperson for Mahan confirmed that the cancellation of French service was “related to sanctions,” although he did not elaborate. Whatever the exact nature of the sanctions, they presumably represent a threat to France’s status as a defender of Iran’s position regarding the 2015 nuclear deal and related issues. But this status was already under threat even before France became the prospective site of a major Iranian terrorism bombing. Amidst its advocacy for keeping the nuclear deal in place, the French government has also vigorously criticized the Iranian government for its ballistic missile activities. The persistence of these activities was a major justification for the White House’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Since then, the US has kept up pressure on that issue, no doubt expecting it to encourage criticism of Iran among other Middle Eastern nations as well as among the nations of Europe. Accordingly, Yleem Poblete, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, made a point of emphasizing Iran’s missile program before the United Nations just a day before Pompeo’s arrival in Kuwait.
Speaking at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Poblete said, “Iran’s missile program is a key contributor to increased tensions and destabilization in the region, increasing the risk of a regional arms race.” She went on to emphasize the Iranian regime’s role in transferring advanced weapons beyond its borders, particularly to terrorist groups like the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have fired ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabian territory as well as using them domestically in the civil war with Yemen’s internationally-recognized government.
But while this messaging may help amplify American appeals to traditional allies and some of Iran’s neighbors, it is unlikely to have much impact on countries that already seem to have aligned with Iran against the West. Prominent among these is Russia, the role of which was highlighted on Wednesday by an article in EuroNews that described the “dark money flows” between the two countries.
The article arguably lent support to efforts by Iran’s greatest critics, regarding the need for concerted, multilateral efforts to impede the Islamic Republic in its financing of terrorism and other destructive activities. Interestingly, though, the EuroNews piece concluded by emphasizing the persistent differences between American and European approaches to relevant issues. Specifically, it credited Europe with exerting meaningful pressure on Russia while disregarding Iran, while the US has been widely described as doing just the opposite.
As long as this strategic incongruity continues, Iran and Russia may continue to exploit the situation to benefit their own partnerships. As EuroNews put it: “Efforts by the leaders of both countries to become more closely associated are increasing as they expand financial, trading and military ties in an effort to decrease their reliance on Western trade while benefiting from it.”
In light of traditionally cooperative relations between Israel and Russia, Pompeo’s prospective visit to the Jewish state could be used to help address the above-mentioned incongruity. But so far, all indications are that US policy remains focused on encouraging partners to confront Iran directly and exert pressure on close partners to cut off trade, while Iran’s more distant partnerships remain, at best, a matter of secondary importance.